Skip to main content


Revolutionary Miracle Breakthrough Cures

Anyone who knows anything about drug research knows to beware terms like “miracle” or “breakthrough” when used to describe a possible new treatment. There are such things, but they’re out numbered by the press releases and clueless reports that describe every other result as an amazing advance in human knowledge. There’s plenty of blame to go around. Companies (especially smaller ones trying to make deals) hype their technology, and on the academic side, university press offices are notoriously off-kilter when it comes to putting their own schools’ work in context.

So all sorts of stuff gets whooped up. This article from JAMA Oncology will give you some statistics, based on searches on Google News. “Miracle”, “cure”, “revolutionary” and so on turn out to get thrown around so much in the cancer field that at least half the time, the potential therapy hasn’t even made it to the FDA. You might theoretically be able to justify that – if something came along and flat-out cured everyone in a Phase II trial, yeah, that would be a breakthrough, but how often does that happen? And in about one out of seven cases, there’s no human data to back up those adjectives at all.

This  hoorah isn’t harmless. Some readers will have their hopes raised prematurely (way prematurely, in the case of those rodent and cell culture results). Others will recall how many times they’ve seen that sort of talk before, with nothing much to show for it, and conclude that either (1) the medical news, top to bottom, is all lying crap, and/or (2) that the Powers That Be are making sure that none of these breakthroughs ever actually make it into use, because Evil Reasons. Neither of those worldviews helps much. A distressing amount of the medical news in the popular press is crap, for sure, but not all of it is. And writing this blog has given me constant reminders over the years that the general public really doesn’t have a good idea of the real failure rates of drug research, which makes it easier to conspiracy-mongering to take hold. (It also makes it easier for the endless supply of frauds to get a hearing). Either way, you end up with lots of people holding the whole effort in mild (or not-so-mild) contempt, which isn’t what we need. Got enough of that on hand already, thanks.


9 comments on “Revolutionary Miracle Breakthrough Cures”

  1. John Wayne says:

    Reminds me of this xkcd:

  2. Pessinist says:

    Its like trying to get to the other end of a obstacle laden field with a random walk.

    we’ve figured out where some of the pitfalls are, on the more familiar part of the field, and are working on controlably biasing the turns

  3. CMCguy says:

    I would have to ask though if all the hyperbolic effort being now an ingrained attention driver in the drug discovery process means academics, small companies and industry as a whole feel compelled to apply such tactics because if they do not their ability to raise funds will be severely hampered. It is not only the general public that knows little about the drug discovery process as many of the internal pharma execs and finance side seem to only focus on the “highly productive gold mine” without taking in to account the number of failed claims the successful mine was build after. Often its like the 1848 California Gold Strike that created a fever sufficient to drive a temporary Rush period that bring in the resources to supply the systems before a balance is achieved. I too cringe at much of the reporting of early science particularly when associated with unreasonably short time lines however have seen miracle discoveries ultimately pay off even though took longer and was not likely as spectacular as first promoted and mainly required the persistence of a few learn, modify and translate exciting news to practical benefit.

    1. Hap says:

      A temporary Rush period might work out better than current methods – playing “Something for Nothing” on an endless loop in pharma exec, VC, and marketing offices might eventually have some positive effects (though marketing might take it as inspiration).

  4. Kent G. Budge says:


    It’s a variant of Gresham’s Law: Hyperbolic P.R. drives out honest P.R.

  5. MoMo says:

    “Translational Research” should have been studied as a superlative as well-or “Translational Medicine”.

    Hype-A-Plenty around these terms.

  6. John M says:

    There’s a direct link between this topic and last week’s post about peoples’ willingness to believe that we can simulate the brain.

  7. David Cockburn says:

    These headline driving announcements are indeed damaging to the Pharma/Bio industry. Firstly the most ridiculous ones come from academic labs based on some rodent or cell line work. This implies that most new miracle new drugs are developed in academia and also that the wicked drug companies then conspire to keep them off the market.
    The second group come from early phase Biotech companies and I find that easier to forgive as they may even have some Phase I or even II work to back up their claims but even in this case it gives a false impression of the ease of bringing really new agents to market.

  8. Old Potter says:

    “Empty vessels make most noise,” as my old granny always used to say…

Comments are closed.